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  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: September 2009

Introduction

Summary

This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabric.

More are men's ends marked than their lives before.

In his mischievous essay, ‘Tempest in a Teapot’, Tony Dawson draws attention to the stories that are told about the end of Shakespeare's career and to the reductive effect these stories invariably have. He announces without preamble that he thinks The Tempest ‘Shakespeare's most consistently overrated play’ (‘Tempest in a Teapot’, 61) and points out that this is a direct result of the play's privileged position as the last Shakespeare wrote, that in view of ‘the importance of chronology in the assessment of Shakespeare's plays’ the fact that The Tempest ‘comes at the end of Shakespeare's career means that it will be read retrospectively, as climactic’ (ibid., 61). Resisting this tendency, he points both to the actual absence of evidence for determining which of the three plays Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, all apparently written in 1610 or 1611, was truly the last of Shakespeare's solo-written plays and to the tactics critics deploy in order to ensure that, of the three, it is The Tempest which retains that status by default, thereby sustaining the standard assumption that the play is intrinsically autobiographical. He notes that Cymbeline, for one, is often treated – on a purely impressionistic basis – ‘as an apprentice work in comparison with The Winter's Tale and The Tempest’ and is therefore ‘seen usually as written earlier than they’, an entirely imaginary priority constructed simply because, as Dawson puts it, ‘we do not like to imagine Cymbeline as Shakespeare's last complete play’ (ibid., 62).